Here's a woman who looks healthy, to say the least. This is a picture of Allison Stokke, a teenage pole vaulter. This picture made Stokke Internet-famous for being hot while she was still underage. According to the Washington Post, this sucked.
The wave of attention has steamrolled Stokke and her family in Newport Beach, Calif. She is recognized -- and stared at -- in coffee shops. She locks her doors and tries not to leave the house alone. Her father, Allan Stokke, comes home from his job as a lawyer and searches the Internet. He reads message boards and tries to pick out potential stalkers.
Mixed feelings here. I'm feeling guilty for spreading the meme, but she's just so hot. I'd love to justify it by saying that fame is always a blessing - any press is good press, just make sure they spell your name right - but that's not necessarily true. I actually have a very clear idea why women don't enjoy being stared at. Lots of geeks praise San Francisco, but I don't live there any more and I'll never move back. I started feeling like a chick in a short skirt walking by a group of construction workers every time I left the house. I've spoken out against homophobia before, but at the same time, I've experienced it, not in the euphemistic sense, where "fear" really means "hate," but in the absolutely literal sense, of feeling threatened. There are gay men who turn into Daytona Beach frat boys in San Francisco, and getting ogled is fucking creepy. But still. Ogling is fun. It's a catch-22.
In the Washington Post article linked above, Allison Stokke complains that she's worked very hard at her pole-vaulting, but is famous for being ogle-worthy. It frustrates her that her fame doesn't have anything to do with her accomplishments. She has a weird, Bizarro-world counterpart in Julia Allison, a compulsive fame seeker who appears to be thrilled that her fame doesn't have anything to do with her total lack of accomplishments - beyond, of course, becoming Internet-famous.
Here's Julia Allison with Kevin Rose. Kevin Rose founded Digg and appeared on the cover of BusinessWeek.
He also appears in
get_famous, a piece of code cooked up in the backchannel at Leah Culver's presentation a week or two ago at CUSEC in Montreal.
Leah was not actually speaking about fame at CUSEC. She treated it as an amusing footnote, and also a sign that creating your own business, and making bold moves in general, can pay off. But there was talk about it all the same. The street finds its own uses for things, and so does the tech conference backchannel.
So do magazines and blogs. It's obvious what's newsworthy in Digg's success as a business, or its apparent success as a business. But at the time this magazine was published, Leah Culver's startup had not yet failed, and the only remarkable thing about it was that Kevin Rose had invested in it. Why would you put a good-looking young blonde on the cover of a technology magazine, when her technological accomplishments were not news-worthy?
If we believe Paul Graham, one reason geeks become geeks is to avoid living in a fabricated world, and to exist in a world where the only thing that decides who wins is who is right. If we believe Michael Arrington, there are people at tech conferences angry enough to spit in his face. I'm not surprised, but Arrington was.
Arrington is an influential tech blogger; despite Arrington's bad manners, aggression, and disregard for facts, getting your startup on the front page of his blog can bring you life-changing amounts of traffic. And being a good-looking young blonde will get you on the front page of TechCrunch quicker than crafting a kick-ass product. And Arrington has no clue why people would want to spit in his face.
It's Arrington and his larvae that make Paul Graham's hypothetical nerd escapism untenable. Marketing is a huge part of the tech industry, whether you like it or not. But vermin feeds on waste. If you want to keep cockroaches out of your kitchen, the key is simple: wash the dishes and take out the trash. To get rid of the vermin, get rid of the waste. Disease-ridden insects like Arrington wouldn't plague our industry if we weren't leaving shit around for them to feed on.
Consider a possibility. What if marketing is something everybody does, and the only way to stop marketing would be to disappear from not just the face of the earth, but also the memory of all humanity? If you generate marketing automatically, the way plants generate air, but you don't harness it for any purpose, that's a form of waste, isn't it? And where you have waste, you have vermin that feed on it.
It actually works if you define marketing to be any image or impression you generate. Then you generate it automatically just by interacting with people. Leah Culver isn't using her looks to sell anything, but that doesn't mean the look of a fresh-faced blonde programmer goes to waste. Technology Review comes along and uses it to sell magazines.
Madonna's personal trainer isn't letting Madonna's image as a healthy woman in her 50s go to waste. Madonna's doing some things with that image, but they're mostly just scary things.
Compare her arm to her leg. She looks like a vampire who stole somebody else's ass and grafted it onto her own body. Attack of the ultimate strobelight hoe. But that horrifying juxtaposition is a thrilling thing, if you're an old woman whose ass looks like an old woman's ass. It's hope at the end of the tunnel - a ray of light - and it's worth nine hundred dollars a month. If you've got the money, it's a bargain.
In this analysis I am playing the role of vermin just by showing you Allison Stokke's picture. She isn't doing anything with that image, but the image won't just disappear; instead bloggers will use it to fuel traffic (and, occasionally, to put their ideas across). The street doesn't just find its own uses for things; the street can also find its own uses for you.
Discovering myself as vermin kinda shocks me, but I can put a positive spin on that. I'm cute vermin. I'm a baby raccoon or a devious monkey, not a roach or a Republican.
Now that I realize it applies to me, I'm prepared to admit that the vermin analogy is too harsh anyway. Arrington isn't that evil - you have to be doing business with pretty uninformed people for Arrington to ruin your day with poor information and name-calling, which is basically the worst thing he can do, and every once in a while his blog puts out a great post or two. And you can't call a personal trainer evil for bragging about her extraordinary results, either. The scariness of Madonna's arms just makes the appeal of her ass that much more remarkable. I mean this is pretty fucking good for 51.
I'm going to skip the issue of sexism here, purely to save space and time. I admit it's an important thing but this post is already approaching epic length. But there's one part of the whole sexist issue which is very very relevant: of the women pictured here, Leah Culver (in my opinion, after meeting her only once) seems amused and indifferent to the way her sexuality draws attention, while Allison Stokke fights against it, and both Julia Allison and Madonna use it deliberately to promote themselves.
Madonna's legendary for it. A lot of people talked about this in the earlier days of her career. You can say that's awesome. She went after ambitious goals and put her sexuality in service of that. But that same attitude that seemed so bold and assertive in the 80s looks mentally ill today.
The number one pop star to follow Madonna's example sometimes looks mentally ill herself.
Britney's descent into madness and return to normalcy freak me out more than a simple descent into madness would have done. Most people, if they start behaving erratically, they realize something has to change. To behave eratically and then suddenly act as if nothing happened is flat-out creepy. There's no point pretending to be just like the rest when you're not. If you're a freak, you're better off admitting it. You're going to stand out anyway.
Check out the cast of characters so far. A programmer and a pole-vaulter who work hard at what they do and get photographed because they're hot. A fame-seeker famous for being famous. A pair of pop stars who made astounding money feeding people the images they wanted, and who went insane in the process. A powerful tech blogger who wins friends, enemies, and most of all attention, all through guesswork and bullshit.
All these people would be right at home in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man. In Ellison's book the protagonist, an unnamed black man, discovers himself trapped in an existentialist nightmare: he is conspicuous, yet invisible. Race factors so heavily in his perceived identity that transcending it becomes impossible. His dilemma: what do you do when everyone who looks at you sees somebody who isn't really there?
I know you already got the point, unless you were a complete idiot, but I'm going to take any excuse to show the Allison Stokke picture I get. Take a good look. She's hot, but you can't see her. She's invisible. All you see is the teenage sex goddess who doesn't really exist.
If Allison Stokke co-wrote this blog post, she might try to show you herself in a different picture.
She was the National Freshman Record holder in the pole-vault in 2004 going 12-08 and winning the California State Meet. In 2005 she was trying out a new pole during a practice session at Golden West College and unfortunately fell into the concrete box, breaking her tibia.
At age 15, Stokke won a California state championship, and broke several national records in her age division. As a senior at Newport Harbor High School, she set the second best mark in the nation for that calendar year with a 13'7" vault. In the CIF State Championship finals she finished 4th after a leg injury interfered with her ability to sprint down the runway. After being highly recruited, Stokke now vaults for the University of California at Berkeley.
That's a completely different picture.
If she were Madonna, she might have merged the two pictures:
Except if she were Madonna, she would have done it in a thong.
You don't see the legs of a hottie now; you see the eyes of a champion. The new picture shifts the focus from her body to her achievements, while still taking advantage of the fact that she's photogenic, and it's a great picture. Great light, great shadows, great near-field/far-field contrast. Great colors - they look stolen from an oil painting.
Great strategy, too. One way around the existential dilemma of Invisible Man is to use the image that people see when they look at you and make it into a sign pointing in the direction of who you really are - or at least, who you imagine yourself to be. Invisible Man goes deeper into the questions of self-knowledge than we're going to go here. It's a bigger paradox than we can handle in this context. For the time being, let's just point out that there's a lot you can do to a photograph with a few judicious edits.
Zed Shaw put a few judicious edits on his image.
That kind of thing is awesome, but trouble starts when the disparity gets big between the image you project and the image other people see. Pointing out your best features is good. Wearing a mask is bad.
Then you have to ask yourself some questions.
That isn't the only ambiguous line in personal branding. When you consider Madonna's personal branding, or Julia Allison's, Obama's, Arrington's, even Zed Shaw's - in fact everyone I've mentioned here so far - you're also dealing with the line between fantasy and reality. Whether the fantasy's one you encourage, discourage, or don't care about, the ambiguity there is real (or appears to be).
By acquiring fame, Julia Allison showed incredible savvy. She understands how people communicate today, the strange blurrings of media into reality and of marketing into networking, better than many, many people. Right after Zed Shaw launched the blog design that featured him in a leather jacket rocking on his guitar with strippers made of fire, he dropped out of the tech industry to study guitar at a bona fide music school. Marketing is becoming even more so. When Zed Shaw went from a programmer who joked about being a rock star to a former programmer studying guitar full-time, he became even more so. He shifted an image into a reality. When Julia Allison went from a fame-seeker to a tiny celebrity sighting in her own right, she became even more so. "Marketing is becoming even more so" in part means "Fake it til you make it." It also means "tell the world who you plan to become."
But that's not all it means - because marketing itself is also becoming even more itself than ever before. If marketing is about images, then ask yourself: does anybody who works in tech marketing ever do any real marketing?
The answer is yes - but it's not "marketing people." It's designers, and API designers.
Here's marketing by "marketing people."
Here's marketing by interface designers.
A lot of engineers don't get design. There's more to it than pretty pictures.
It's about making things worth buying.
Designers as marketers shape the product to make it sell. It works. "Marketing people" slap a bunch of bullshit on packaging. It doesn't work as well. I forgot who said it - probably Clay Shirky - but the major change that ubiquitous global networked communication brought to corporate America is that evil isn't a good business practice any more. The costs in terms of reputation outweigh the benefits in a world where everyone can talk to everyone instantly.
For a long time, a sizeable part of what marketing did was complete bullshit - but that bullshit can't survive the increased exposure current conditions provide. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. When the best marketing medium available is not television advertising but word of mouth, the best marketing strategy consists of only two things:
1. An interesting story
2. Human decency
For more about this you should read every book Seth Godin's ever written (except for Little Is The New Big and about half of Tribes). No time for detail now. The question is, if a sizeable part of what marketing did was complete bullshit, but that's changing, then what remains, and what gets burned away?
Marketing is becoming even more so. The bullshit burns away. The core remains.
My basic premise is that the internet is not replacing advertising but shattering it, and all the king’s horses, all the king’s men, and all the creative talent of Madison Avenue cannot put it together again.
What is marketing fundamentally? Have you ever worked in marketing? It's people with style getting other people to buy things. I've worked or consulted for cutting-edge viral marketing startups, corporate marketing departments, medium-sized ad agencies, tiny marketing firms. That's all it ever is. And as the Internet makes celebrities bigger, not smaller, and populates every industry with its own pantheon of local celebrities, it makes marketing even more so. It's people with style getting other people to buy things, even more so than it ever was, because today they don't have to pay for ads to do it any more.
I can't find a link to it, but I saw a great story in USA Today last year about the Web site for Gossip Girl. I don't normally read that paper, but they slide it under your door at hotels, and I was in a lot of hotels last year. Anyway, the site makes a ton of money selling the clothes that the stars wear on the show, and their prime selling period is right after the show airs. Gossip Girl isn't moving away from the advertising business model, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a prime example of people with style getting people to buy things, the same way they always did, but now even more so.
Design is marketing.
Attaining fame and/or notoreity is the only key to career security. You can and should attain it deliberately.
There's only one way to do that. Take your truest, sincerest passions and focus on them to the utmost. Become even more so.